This week the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is being marked on TV. There are countless programs airing. The day of Sept. 11, 2001, is chronicled in footage that still beggars language. Those who died are remembered. Those who helped the injured and found the dead are celebrated. Even the stories of animals that helped are being told.
There’s logic to all of that. But it’s the discussion of the impact of 9/11 that has a muddled quality. Part of the problem is the indulgence in decade-ism. TV producers and pundits in all types of media like to wrap complex evolutions in culture and politics into neat, 10-year packages. Often foolishly so.
In the matter of 9/11, a decade is too soon to settle on conclusions. On the one hand, the immediate impact of the terrorist attacks is in front of us every day. Air travel, for example, is vastly different. On the other hand, its subtle impact – on politics, on art, on ways of seeing religions and asserting nationalism – is still morphing this way and that. Often the affects are under the surface and it will be years more before they are understood with any clarity.
That’s why many of the TV programs made to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 are devoid of insight. Some are simply fatuous.
On television in the last decade we saw the pop-culture craziness of ceaselessly chasing terrorists on 24 as an obvious reflection of the post-9/11 world. But even Jack Bauer wore out his welcome and the hysteria became ludicrous as material for TV drama. Part of the authentic impact of 9/11 is a much more deeply ingrained paranoia – a fear of others, a fear of unknown forces determined to attack or subvert the United States from outside or from within.
Often, TV series reflected this mood elliptically. Just as fear of aliens became a stand-in for fear of communism in the 1950s and early 1960s, a fear of other cultures came to represent fear of terrorism and threatening “others” over the last decade. From the ABC series Invasion in 2006 to the revival of the alien invasion series V two years ago, the pattern is the same – fear of others and the profound effect of those fears on established ideas about civilized society. In these shows, a constant theme is taming a combative, oppressive authority.
The reality of dealing with oppressive authority has rarely been a focus, though. And that reality, a core aspect of the post-9/11 period, is covered in a superb and shocking documentary airing tonight.
Better This World (PBS, 10 p.m.) is that doc and, since it airs on the series POV, you can be certain it has a point of view. It’s about what happened to David McKay and Bradley Crowder, who were arrested during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in 2008. But it’s really about the widespread acceptance of the erosion of civil liberties, the limits placed on protest and increased U.S. government vigilance of protesters.
Crowder and McKay were boyhood friends living in Texas. In their late teens, they became radicalized by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like many Americans. They were in their early 20s when they went to a bookstore in Austin to learn about a protest being planned for the 2008 Republican National Convention. At that meeting, they were approached by an older activist, a guy who encouraged their outrage at the Bush administration’s doings and helped them be better activists.
Months later, just before the convention, the two young men had hardened views. They made Molotov cocktails to use at a protest, but then decided not to use them – that was a step too far. But it turned out that the mentor who had begun encouraging them at the bookstore meeting was a government informant and he had been for years. Crowder and McKay were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism.
Thus an issue arises: Was the informant, who was acting on behalf of various government agencies, prodding them into actions they would never have undertaken without his encouragement, and thus trapping them?
The informer’s point of view is not represented in the film. However, footage of the riots and unrest at the convention serve to tell the point of view of ordinary people who witnessed what was happening. They were frightened and alarmed at the hostility on display.
Better This World, made by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, has won numerous awards and one can see why. It’s superbly made, structured like a thriller and, while it clearly has one point of view, it forces people to think about two kinds of zeal – of paranoid governments and of active dissidents. And it suggests that everybody has been naive about the post-9/11 world. As such, it says more than almost everything airing in the period around the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
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